Media Rights, Cricket, Europe, Global, Asia

At Large | Channel 4 takes cricket back to the future as the broadcast picture shifts

The surprise return of live Test cricket to free-to-air TV has been welcomed by locked-down England fans but with Disney involved, there are other plenty of other themes in play.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | Channel 4 takes cricket back to the future as the broadcast picture shifts

English cricket fans can look forward to some surprise reunions this week.  

Channel 4 is back in the game, along with Lou Bega and a little bit of Monica, Jessica, Sandra and the rest. It is a return few saw coming until about ten days ago. A quickfire deal has yielded the UK rights to the England men’s team’s imminent tour of India, bringing a sudden end to a near 16-year wait. 

Live Test cricket has not been on free-to-air television in the UK since a delirious summer on the same channel in 2005, when England ended an even longer wait to beat Australia in an Ashes series. Audience records were set, and the national imagination set alight, before a pre-ordered retreat behind the paywall. 

There have been some isolated FTA appearances for cricket since – the most notable being a hastily arranged simulcast, with lead domestic broadcaster Sky Sports, of a heart-stopping English Cricket World Cup final win in 2019. But with a carefully plotted return to the BBC hampered by the Covid outbreak last year, there has been nothing as extensive as this. It has all been ample excuse for a fond look back at Channel 4’s excellent six-year stint in the game at the turn of the millennium. 

Back when it replaced the BBC in 1999, Channel 4 was an innovator and an interloper. Its more exploratory, inclusive editorial approach was paired with technological advances that have since become industry standard. In the case of Hawk-Eye, they changed whole sports. This is easily forgotten now but moving a state-protected live event from one public broadcaster to another was deemed pretty radical back then. 

Of course, Channel 4 was the last to take advantage of that listed status and this week’s news has also been cause to relitigate the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) decision to put pay-TV revenue over reach in 2005. That discussion is valid but it is worth rights holders looking through the other end of the telescope, too, in assessing what lies ahead. 

This deal is actually a first for cricket in the UK: never before has an England overseas tour been broadcast in its entirety on free-to-air TV. Channel 4 bought its coverage from Star Sports, which holds the global rights to India’s home games in a five-year, US$944 million deal with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)

Intrigue surrounds the failure of pay-TV leaders Sky Sports and BT Sport – both of which do have an eye on England’s trip to Australia at the end of the year – to secure access to such a coveted series. Putting their motivations to one side, Channel 4 is said to have made a ‘compelling’ offer. And while it may be unanticipated, it is easy to trace the logic through a unique set of circumstances. 

The time difference puts the start of play at around 4am GMT. That means that Channel 4 can show an entire day without putting any of its prime-time programming block at risk and – with respect to those who enjoy breakfasting to repeats of Frasier and Cheers – without disrupting too much of its regular viewing. With that, some of the objections FTA outlets have supposedly built up towards long-form cricket in the UK are shaken loose.

Scheduling, though, is not the main reason for Channel 4 to pounce. The UK is currently in the midst of a national lockdown whose end date is uncertain, but looks pretty sure to be after the fourth Test in early March. It could well be on the far side of subsequent one-day international (ODI) and T20 series. 

More people, in other words, are at home: working from home, home-schooling, or on furlough. Commutes have been eliminated, clearing time early on weekday mornings. Many more viewers will be able to clear a few hours for live sport across the weekend. If there is anything Channel 4 is curious about when it comes to the value of the cricket-watching demographic – and in a series featuring India, there may be a good bit of upside – this is a strangely optimal scenario in which to experiment. 

That said, whatever Channel 4’s positioning, this could be telling us more about an altogether bigger media player. Star Sports owner Disney was rumoured to have considered its own Disney+ subscription service for this series, most likely tying in with the British launch of the Star brand in the UK on 23rd February. That might yet happen – according to The Guardian, the deal with Channel 4 is non-exclusive.

Disney has the capacity to do something very interesting here. Star Sports also holds the worldwide rights to the Indian Premier League (IPL) until 2022 in another five-year deal – this one worth US$2.55 billion. It will not reach the end of an eight-year deal with the International Cricket Council (ICC) for its global events until 2023. Some of those are already sub-licensed elsewhere but that level of control makes Indian cricket an obvious test case for Disney+ as an international sports platform. 

Even if those are not Disney’s intentions, the broadcast picture is being scrambled. Analysts have been warning for some time of an overheating traditional rights market, and some suggest the economics for global streaming platforms are not well served by local sports deals. Writing in the Financial Times this week, global media editor Alex Barker argued that Netflix would be better off using its US$17 billion annual content budget to buy a league outright than bidding for live TV contracts.

In the medium term, piecemeal trials remain the order of the day. For Amazon right now, opportunism is a feature, not a bug, as it collects rights to support its Prime membership plan. Smaller cricket deals are the thin end of a wedge it hopes can pry open an Indian streaming market in which Disney is ahead. However, if media conglomerates and tech giants do start buying globally at the top end of the market, that will set up new dynamics.

In that context, in some markets, partial free-to-air distribution partnerships could become more common. Fans might win out of this, if only sporadically. But broadcasters making bigger bets will likely be making fewer bets, while those making more will go smaller, more specific and more reactive. Test cricket for a nation kept indoors may only be the start.

For rights holders, outside a lucky few, things are going to get complicated. There are dangerous signs in the marketplace, not least the failure so far of French soccer’s Ligue 1 to replace its collapsed arrangement with Mediapro. There is growth to be found in the sports industry but it will need to be looked for, and that will take an agility and breadth of capabilities that not many sports bodies yet possess. 

That is one of the functions of the private equity money circulating through sport. It is telling that the other left-field move of the week, and a more substantial one at that, was the €300 million Volleyball World joint venture between CVC and the FIVB. That level of investment promises rapid scale but will change priorities in other important ways. There will be adjustments, to say the least.

All this will be some way from the minds of English cricket followers as they cue Mambo No 5 on Channel 4, greeting the prospect of an unusual, unexpected national moment. Like a Test match, though, the contest is long and exacting, and there may be more going on than meets the eye.